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NJDOT Commissioner: $1 Million for Transit Villages Not Enough, So We Made It Zero

May 17, 2011

Construction of the Somerville Town Center. Source: BOB KARP/Gannett

Ever since the state Department of Transportation’s proposed Transportation Capital Plan was released this spring without funding for the popular Transit Village program, Commissioner Jim Simpson has taken a curious tack in defending his decision to defund the program. It goes something like this: Contrary to appearances, the NJDOT really likes the Transit Village program, and its aim of producing more transit-oriented development. But the $1 million in funding the program received paled in comparison to the need, so we decided to eliminate the funding altogether. It’s a position that begs the obvious question: In that case, why not increase the funding, rather than eliminate it? Or at the very least, why not keep the program at the same funding level?

The commissioner reiterated this view most recently in an interview with NJ 101.5 discussing the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s recent analysis of the DOT capital plan. He likened distributing the $1 million grant pool to “trying to spread peanut butter around the state…you really didn’t get any big bang for the buck.”

We’ve already used this space to dispel the notion that grants made under the Transit Village program are inconsequential. The short version is: The grant money provides an incentive for municipalities to participate in the program, which requires them to adopt a number of transit-friendly development policies. Without this funding, municipalities have no incentive to participate, and the state loses out on increased transit-oriented development and the economic activity it generates.

Likewise, while it may be possible, as the commissioner claims, that projects within designated transit villages could be funded from other sources, doing so undermines the entire premise of the program, which is that municipalities will be rewarded for engaging in sound land-use planning in line with criteria set forth by the department. Asking designated transit villages to compete for funding against every other town in the state is unfair to towns that have already sought designation, and provides no incentive for new towns to participate in the program.

A few recent examples help illustrate the connection. Last month, officials in Bound Brook, a designated transit village, announced plans to build a 200-unit luxury apartment building near the town’s train station on the site of the former Bolmer Motor Car building. The proposal fits in with larger efforts to redevelop the downtown as a walkable hub of pedestrian activity. Meanwhile, a few stops up the Raritan Valley line in Somerville (also a designated transit village), developers recently broke ground on a major redevelopment project that will revitalize the borough’s downtown with a mix of housing and commercial buildings. In both instances, planning funded by the Transit Village program helped pave the way for the new projects.

The commissioner is certainly correct that $1 million in grant funding split many ways (grants are typically for between $100,000 and $500,000) does not go far toward meeting the state’s huge need for transportation capital funding. But the purpose of the Transit Village program was never to solve the state’s infrastructure needs; it was to catalyze good planning at the local level that took advantage of the state’s extensive public transportation system and encouraged smart growth. By that measure, the program has been a great success so far, and modest funding that it requires is a bargain when considering all of the economic activity it helps generate.

Past Transit Village coverage on Garden State Smart Growth:

Make the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice

May 17, 2011
  • More than 60 percent of New Jersey’s adults and 31 percent of young people between the ages of 10 to 17 are overweight or obese, according to the most recent state and national surveys.
  • In 2008, New Jersey spent $2.2 billion on obesity-related health care, according to a report by the United Health Foundation, the American Public Health Association and Partnership for Prevention. Complications of obesity can be life-threatening and include heart disease, hypertension, stroke, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and premature death.
  • The 2001 National Household Travel Survey reported that 48 percent of trips taken in metropolitan areas are for distances of less than three miles, and 28 percent for less than one mile. Yet despite these ideal biking/walking distances, the survey found that 65 percent of trips of less than one mile are taken by car.

Biking, Walking Will Improve Your Health … and New Jersey’s

American society has become “obesogenic,” according to the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is, our physical, social and economic environments make it easy for us to consume lots of calories, but much more difficult to burn them off.

On the one hand, drive-through fast-food outlets, abundant convenience stores, vending machines and constant advertising for fatty, sugary foods and sugar-sweetened drinks all combine to make unhealthy food the easy choice. At the same time, the automobile-dependent design of many communities makes it nearly impossible to get regular physical exercise by walking or biking between common destinations like school, work or even the gym. 

Our environment—physical, social and cultural—affects our daily behavior. If we want to encourage healthy choices every day about eating and physical activity, we need environments where such choices are available, affordable and easy.

To help enable these healthy environments, New Jersey Future signed on as a partner to ShapingNJ, a public-private partnership of more than 150 organizations across the state. Coordinated by the Department of Health and Senior Services’ Office of Nutrition & Fitness, ShapingNJ is charged with addressing the obesity epidemic through policy and environmental change. The partnership’s vision is to “make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Specific strategies to address the obesity epidemic through environmental change include:

  • promoting land-use patterns that encourage the creation of neighborhoods where people can walk or bike to daily destinations, such as schools and shops;
  • creating or enhancing places for physical activity by designating walking or biking trails to scenic or local destinations;
  • encouraging active recreation by locating basketball courts, soccer fields, playgrounds and other venues in well-lit, safe, accessible parts of the community; and
  • enacting traffic-calming along routes to school, recreation areas and other destinations.

One easy way to get active is to change our travel behavior, particularly this month during Bike Month. Riding a bicycle or walking represents an affordable and convenient way to get around, particularly for short distances, and travel by bike or foot can help get your heart rate up. It can improve the overall health of our state as well. The largest source of air pollution in New Jersey is automobile emissions; we can all make a contribution to breathing cleaner, healthier air by walking or biking more and driving less.

The League of American Bicyclists recently ranked New Jersey the eighth most “Bicycle Friendly State” and bestowed a “Bronze Award” on the Garden State for its policies. If enough of us are inspired during Bike Month to toss down the car keys and make our next trip out of the house a healthier one, New Jersey might be rewarded by turning that bronze to silver or gold—and each of us will be making a personal contribution to making New Jersey a healthier state.

Light Rail Extension to Support TOD in Jersey City

May 13, 2011

Rendering of the proposed Bayfront Redevelopment. Source: Jersey City Redevelopment Agency

At its monthly meeting on Wednesday, the NJ Transit Board of Directors approved a plan to extend the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line across Route 440 in Jersey City to the city’s western waterfront along the Hackensack River. The project, which would extend the line to a new station .7 miles past its current terminus at the West Side Avenue Station, is largely intended to service the proposed Bayfront Redevelopment, a massive mixed-use development project on an industrial site owned by Honeywell International. The light rail extension is estimated to cost $171.6 million.

Jersey City is already a national leader in transit-oriented development (as illustrated in an awesome video by the folks at Streetfilms), and the proposed Bayfront Redevelopment will only add to the city’s reputation. The project includes 8,100 housing units and 1.8 million square feet of office and retail space, as well as a waterfront greenway, park space and plazas, all tied together with a new street grid on the 100-acre site. As Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healey put it, “[This project] will further our administration’s goal of creating Smart Growth urban communities …”

That the HBLR line is being used to spur major new development is nothing new. Indeed, much of the office and residential high-rises that have transformedNew Jersey’s “Gold Coast” in recent decades have been in direct response to the area’s excellent transit connections. The difference here is the deliberate, collaborative approach taken to facilitate this type of sustainable development on a large scale. The site’s owner, Honeywell International, along with Jersey City and NJ Transit, all have something to gain by seeing the site redeveloped, and all play a role in enabling that to happen. This collaborative, public/private approach to transit-oriented development can serve as a model for other areas of the state.

Deadline Friday – Join Us!

May 12, 2011

More than 200 people are already committed to attending our 10th Smart Growth Awards on Thursday, June 9. As usual, we expect a great networking event with a room full of New Jersey’s leaders in smart growth.

We hope you and your colleagues will join us for the occasion, and a great way to participate is through sponsorship, which includes an ad in the printed and electronic program book as well as tickets to the event. For the first time, an electronic version of the program book will be distributed to more than 4,000 leaders in the state – developers, architects, planners, municipal officials, and more.

Already signed on as supporters are Tyco, New Jersey Natural Gas, Bayshore Recycling, Verizon and Maraziti, Falcon & Healey, among others.

Celebrate 10 years of smart growth success by joining us, please email Dan Fatton or call 609-393-0008 ext. 105, before the end of the day on Friday, May 13.

Smart Growth Awards
Seven projects and 17 honorees will receive Smart Growth Awards for initiatives ranging from a new village center in Byram Township (Sussex County) to a creative inter-municipal affordable housing project in Pilesgrove Township and Woodstown Borough (Salem County) to an innovative recycling complex in Woodbridge. (click here for a complete list of the winners and honorees).

As part of its 10th Anniversary Smart Growth Awards ceremony in June, New Jersey Future will also honor longtime smart growth advocate James G. Gilbert, Managing Director – Investments and Wealth Management Advisor at Merrill Lynch,with the Cary Edwards Leadership Award. As the first chair of the State Planning Commission, Mr. Gilbert was a driving force behind the initial adoption of the State Development and Redevelopment Plan in 1992 and a founding member of New Jersey Future’s board of trustees. He has worked to implement sound planning at the local level through his involvement as Past President and current member of New Jersey Planning Officials board as well as a member of the Highlands Coalition board and former chairman and member of the Englewood planning board.

Sponsorship and Registration:

For a current list of sponsors, click here.

For sponsorship information, click here or contact Dan Fatton at 609/393-0008, ext. 105

For the early-bird ticket, click here.
To pay by check, please send to 137 West Hanover Street, Trenton, NJ 08618.

Fear of School Kids Trumps Land-Use Planning in Robbinsville

May 4, 2011

To be fair, kids can be pretty scary. Source: paradiseofhorror.com

Before we dive into this, a disclaimer: We have no opinion on whether Sharbell’s proposal to remove age restrictions from 150 housing units in Robbinsville is a good idea or not. In fact, we try to stay out of local land-use decisions and stick to state policy, and this case is no different. There may be plenty of valid reasons Sharbell’s proposal was wrong for Robbinsville, but when that township’s planning board voted to deny the developer’s application to convert the units because it would attract too many school kids, it raised the larger issue of the role of fiscal considerations in land-use decision-making at the local level.

As reported by the Messenger Press on Monday, the Robbinsville Planning Board rejected Sharbell’s proposal by a vote of 5-1, citing “concerns that the change would cause an influx of schoolchildren and a steep increase in school taxes.” The decision was met with cheers of approval from the crowd, which shared the board’s concern about the impact of the proposed conversion on local taxes. Even the Robbinsville Board of Education weighed in against the plan, saying, ““Any additional housing in Robbinsville that is not accompanied by a long-term plan to secure a new school facility will create undue financial hardship on district residents and harm the school district’s ability to properly educate the children already in its care.”

That a town would allow fiscal considerations to dictate its land-use policy is nothing new. Indeed, this phenomenon, known as the “Ratables Chase,” has been around for years. In 2003, New Jersey Future wrote this in a report calling for reform of the state’s property tax system: “Property taxes seriously skew housing choiceThe property tax system drives many communities to favor commercial, industrial or senior housing developments over traditional family housing in order to limit school-age children.” More recently, New Jersey Future made light of the lengths to which towns will go to attract so-called “clean ratables” in its April Fool’s Day post about a fictional reality TV show called “Ratable Wars,” in which towns compete for a new shopping center (with the losing towns, appropriately, getting new housing).

This is not meant to disparage the residents and planning board of Robbinsville, who, it could be argued, were only acting in their rational self-interest. Rather, it serves as another example of the distortions in local land-use planning caused by the state’s property tax system. It is these same distortions that have resulted in a jobs-to-housing imbalance of 13:1 in the Route 1 region in Mercer County, and a protracted legal battle surrounding a proposed transit-oriented development at the Princeton Junction train station. Ultimately, achieving a sustainable system of local land-use decision-making that relies on sound planning principles, not short-term financial impacts, will require systemic property tax reform at the state level.

In the meantime, there are ways to incentivize towns to accept housing, such as the Smart Housing Zones initiative proposed by New Jersey Future in 2008. This program would have given towns a financial reward for each new unit of housing zoned for in smart growth areas, though the initiative died in the Legislature.

As for Robbinsville, the planning board’s decision is merely the first step in what will likely be a drawn-out legal dispute between the town and Sharbell, whose spokesman has already said the developer intends to appeal the ruling. As Robbinsville’s mayor put it, “There are no winners or losers, as I am sure we are headed to court. We simply end one chapter and open another.”

Why NJ Should Tie Business Incentives to Smart Growth

April 26, 2011

Panasonic Chief Executive Officer Joseph Taylor signs the lease agreement to bring the corporation's North American Headquarters to Newark, Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Source: Panasonic

The following op-ed by New Jersey Future Executive Director Peter Kasabach appeared in the Corner Office section of this week’s edition of NJ BIZ:

New Jersey is poised to hand out $137 million in tax credits to two companies — Panasonic Corp. and Bayer HealthCare — that recently announced plans to relocate their headquarters in the Garden State.

Panasonic stands to gain $102 million by moving its North American headquarters from Secaucus to Newark. Bayer will receive $35 million by consolidating its entire East Coast business in a single New Jersey location to be determined.

Is this money well spent? That depends on whom you ask. Newark officials certainly think the incentive offered to Panasonic is a wise investment. But in Secaucus, Panasonic’s current landlord, Hartz Mountain Industries, has filed an appeal to stop the state from issuing a tax credit for the move.
State support for Bayer’s consolidation will no doubt be welcomed in whichever town the pharmaceutical giant chooses as the site of its new headquarters. But in three New Jersey communities that are now home to Bayer facilities — Wayne, Montville and Morris Township — the company’s receipt of a state subsidy to consolidate its operations elsewhere may be greeted with less enthusiasm.

From the state’s perspective, offering tax incentives to companies that either create jobs in New Jersey or choose not to move them to another state is an important economic development strategy. But from one town’s perspective, state tax policy that may encourage a company to move to another town is the ultimate in fiscal injustice.

How can these sometimes competing interests be balanced? One way is for the state to more closely align its business attraction and relocation strategies with its land-use policies.
New Jersey wants its established cities and towns to retain their economic vitality by attracting new development, and promoting redevelopment, where infrastructure already exists. At the same time, the state wants to preserve open space and protect environmentally sensitive areas by restraining growth in places where it is not appropriate.
It would make sense, then, for the state to establish a hierarchy of business incentives based, in part, on where the business in question is proposing to locate.

If, for example, a company wants to build a shiny new headquarters in the middle of a cornfield that has no housing nearby, is not located near
existing sewer service and can be reached only by car, it should not be rewarded with a bountiful state subsidy. If, on the other hand, a company wants to renovate an existing building in an established downtown within walking distance of housing and transit, it should merit a healthy financial incentive.
There will be any number of examples, of course, that fall between these two extremes. Bayer is reportedly looking at several suburban locations, including at least one that involves retrofitting an existing building and anchoring a larger mixed-use development. The retrofit and mixed-use development should earn the company a larger incentive than it would receive for new construction, but its suburban location should warrant less credit than it would get if it located in, say, downtown Paterson — or even in closer proximity to a train station outside an urban setting.

Several of New Jersey’s pressing problems — rising gasoline prices, worsening traffic congestion, disappearing open space — would be mitigated if we were to reverse the decades-long trend of people moving farther away from where they work, and becoming more dependent on the automobile. Connecting housing with jobs, and making both more accessible to transit, should be a high priority in the years ahead, and the state’s business attraction and relocation strategies should reflect this. When it comes to dispensing precious financial incentives, the state should discourage companies from perpetuating the problems of the past, and reward companies that will make New Jersey a better place to live and work in the future.

The Impact of Transit Villages: One Reader’s Story

April 25, 2011

Downtown Metuchen. Source: PrudentialNewJersey.com

As readers of this blog know, the proposed Transportation Capital Plan for FY 2012 eliminates funding for the Transit Village program, which encourages quality transit-oriented development by making funding available to municipalities that meet certain criteria for planning and zoning around their transit station. The move has important policy implications for the NJDOT, which is increasingly retreating from its position as a leader in the 2000’s of linking land use and transportation. But it also has more personal impacts, as we were reminded recently when reader Karen passed along this anecdote about how she and her husband came to live in Metuchen:

“When my husband and I were looking to move to NJ, we used a specific criteria to screen possible communities.  We used a map of NJ to pinpoint possible places we’d look to buy a home – after moving from NYC.  It included:

  • Transit Villages
  • Walkable – with a sense of “place” and a “Main Street”
  • Commute time to NYC – ideally under one hour direct by train
  • A vibrant Jewish community (synagogues, etc)
  • Within proximity to a Trader Joe’s

Using that lens, we found Metuchen.  We’ve lived there six and a half years, and we LOVE it.  The compactness of town feels cozy – and we’ve made great friends through the local YMCA, the CSA, and the Friends of the Library.  Best of all, my husband walks to and from the train – it’s less than a half mile from our house.”

As attracting new jobs, residents and investment continues to be the main focus of this administration in Trenton, Karen’s story reminds us that one of the state’s main selling points has always been its collection of vibrant, walkable communities, something that the Transit Village program has helped foster. Let’s hope NJDOT Commissioner Jim Simpson fixes his “mistake” and restores funding for the program this year.

Do you have a smart growth story from your life that you’d like to share? If so we’d love to hear it. Send it us @ jcorbalis@njfuture.org; or send us a picture through our Smart Growth Photo Contest.